IF Comp Reviewing Info

It’s IF Comp time again, and you know what that means. I will be publishing some reviews of games!

To prevent spread of spoilers to judges who don’t want them, I’ve temporarily set my syndication to summary rather than having it post full-length content. I will also be following my standard reviewing template, which is to start with some general discussion, and then save spoilers (if any) for after an additional spoiler jump.

Anyone who submits something to IF Comp deserves a baseline level of respect due to going to the effort to make something and having the generosity to share it and the courage to invite feedback. I do my best to review courteously and constructively, and reveal applicable biases, such as having seen a pre-release version of something, or being a non-fan of the genre it belongs to.

Conversely, detailed criticism from me does not mean I hate you or hate your game; on the contrary, I am most likely to go into loads of detail about games that I thought had some merit or contributed in some way to our understanding of what interactive stories can do. Reviews can fill a lot of different functions, from providing guidance to players to cheerleading for new authors to feedback for old hands to self-revelation on the part of the reviewer. I probably do a little of each of those things, but what I’m most interested in is contributing to a conversation about interactive storytelling as a whole — a conversation that has always been strong in the IF community and that has only grown as the barriers around the trad parser IF community have come down a bit.

I review as many games as I can, subject to the following constraints:

a) it has to run on Mac OS X.

b) if it’s a parser-based game, it has to mention the existence of beta-testers somewhere I can find. (I do type ABOUT, HELP, CREDITS, etc., looking for this.) I waive this requirement for choice-based work, though I still think it’s best to have your work tested; it’s not impossible even for a Twine piece to contain bugs.

c) I don’t guarantee that I will play all of every game I review. Competition reviewing in the IF community is traditionally a bit different from reviewing in other contexts, and one of the differences is that it’s generally considered acceptable to leave a game unfinished and say why you didn’t get through it, much like producing a reader report on a slush pile.

Not finishing a game has historically happened for a wide range of reasons, some reasonably objective: the game took longer than 2 hours to play, I got stuck and there was no walkthrough (or following the walkthrough didn’t work), I ran into a major bug that either was or appeared to be game-breaking. There are also more subjective reasons that boil down to “I am finding this really unpleasant and I want to stop now.” Once I quit a game because it asked me to hit another character in a kind of domestic violence scenario, and it happened that I was in the middle of helping someone close to me leave an abusive partner and was not in a headspace to be roleplaying People Who Hit Loved Ones. Comp reviewing is not a commitment to blindly put yourself through anything and everything the comp sends your way.

In case you would like to ignore my reviews of uncompleted games, I will indicate whether I did or did not finish a particular work.

d) some years I cannot get through everything; I’m doing this in spare time around other full-time work, and writing long reviews of dozens of games is time-consuming stuff.

If you’re an author, it is fine, and not a violation of the public discussion rules, to email me about what I have written about your game. If you feel I’ve misrepresented a matter of fact, if you tell me privately and I agree with you, I’ll be more than happy to put up a retraction or correction. If you just want to chat more about what I said or ask for a private clarification, that is also fine.

However, please do not respond with a comment on the blog while the competition is still running. Doing so counts as public discussion and can get you disqualified, so if I notice an author comment on a review while the comp is running, I’ll assume it’s a rules misunderstanding and remove the comment for your own protection. Still, it’s better if you don’t get yourself into that situation to start with.

Likewise, I get one or two emails a year from authors who are sad/frustrated/anxious because I haven’t written up their game yet. Please don’t do that. I empathize with the desire for feedback. Seriously, I really understand. Back in the day when I used to enter the comp myself, it allowed no public discussion by anyone until the comp ended, so you had about six nail-biting weeks of radio silence and then on midnight of judging day suddenly there came a deluge of hundreds of K of Usenet messages that you stayed up all night reading…

However, pinging me to complain that I haven’t done your review yet doesn’t really accomplish anything other than to make me grumpy, especially if (as is often the case) I’m already burning some midnight oil to get this thing done. If I don’t get to it at all, there’s probably a reason that email would not resolve.

Best of luck, all, and thanks to the authors for making this happen! I’m really excited to see what this year brings.

Game Design Vocabulary

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 3.36.51 PM

Someone emailed me today to ask for books with which to learn about storytelling in choice-based games, and this reminded me that I haven’t yet mentioned A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design here.

It’s a collaboration by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, and is intended for student-level use — each chapter ends with review bullet points and some suggested study activities.

“Introductory” doesn’t mean shallow, though. For instance, the section on game storytelling covers a number of standard topics (the structural challenges of a branching storyline, emergent vs authored stories) but also brings in a lot of more recent indie and IF community thought on things like reflective choice and shared storytelling. It includes coverage of parser IF, Twine pieces, and Choice of Games works, among others. (Full disclosure: Bee and Floatpoint both get a mention.) There’s also a solid appendix of further playing content. Recommended.

Charity Auction followup

Many thanks to those who participated in this past weekend’s auction! Thanks to the high bidders and some particularly kind people who made bidless donations, we brought in a total of $918 towards school supplies from Donors Choose, supporting

  • construction paper, paintbrushes, dry erase markers, and crayons
  • posterboards and resource books for a science fair
  • a Dell laptop
  • two Lego Mindstorms kits
  • worms for teaching about composting, terrarium supplies, and three live frogs
  • five pre-packaged STEM lab projects, an electricity activity set, and an inflatable solar system demonstration set
  • thermometers, beakers, pipettes, and other basic lab supplies
  • a non-fiction selection of science books and biographies
  • classroom subscriptions to TIME for kids and SuperScience magazine

(Some of these projects also received partial support from other Donors Choose donors.)

I really appreciate the response. This is a cause that means a lot to me. [ETA: and someone anonymously added a donation for a planetarium field trip, bringing the total to an even $1K. Thank you, anonymous benefactor!]

Flash Charity Auction: 1, 3, 5 hours of work time

I am auctioning off some work time — 9 hours in total, in chunks of 5 hours, 3 hours, and 1 hour — in support of Donors Choose, a charity that provides educational supplies to underfunded classrooms in the US. Bidding runs through 5 PM Pacific today (1 AM British time) and the work is to be done this weekend.

How does this work?

Between now and 5 PM Pacific time, you can comment here to bid (in dollars, please).

Highest bidder gets the 5-hour chunk, second place the 3-hour, third place the 1-hour. So if you’re the only person to bid, you could wind up with the 5 hours for a super-low price. When time is up, I’ll determine who the winners are and comment with that information. It’s then up to you to fulfill your bid by donating here and letting me know what specifically you have in mind. I will start work tomorrow and will aim to have the tasks done by Monday evening.

That’s very little notice! Hardly any, in fact!

I know. It’s pretty unusual for me to know way in advance that I’m going to have a free weekend, though.

What if no one goes for this?

I make cookies instead. Mm, cookies. (Honestly, I have no idea whether this will produce any interesting results. It’s an experiment.)

What would that get me?

Some things you could have me spend time on include:

  • betatesting your WIP
  • giving feedback on a game design document or concept
  • making some (photo and text-based) cover art for a game
  • revising prose written by a non-native speaker
  • writing a review of a freeware game of your choice (it needs to be short enough that I can both play and review in the time slot, and needs to run on Mac OSX)
  • creating a custom I7 extension to tackle some irritating code problem (again, within limits — something like Threaded Conversation is not a 5-hour project)
  • curating a list of IF specific to an interest of yours
  • writing a short essay about an IF- or game-related topic
  • writing a tiny custom speed-IF (in the 1 hour slot this would probably need to be choice-based)

…but I’m open to other possible uses of time as well, if you have something else in mind.

So basically you’ll do what I say?

Er, within certain limits. Obviously: no illegal activities, no pornography, nothing unethical (such as having me write a glowing review of a work without disclosing the funding source). No hacks that aren’t really labor exchanges (“spend one hour mailing me your laptop”), or that would cost me additional money to perform unless we’ve talked it through first. If you have doubts about whether your request is reasonable, feel free to request clarification.

Why Donors Choose?

This gets long and is not about what this blog is usually about, but if you’re interested:

Continue reading

Assorted IF-related reading

I wrote a piece on the Best Individual Puzzle nominees from the 2013 XYZZYs. It is also an attempt to pull together some thoughts about how puzzles can be good in completely different ways and for different reasons — something I think last year’s spread of nominees demonstrates particularly stongly.

Meanwhile, Sam Ashwell has just posted a (long!) post about types of player agency in games. There’s lots there, but I’m especially interested in Sam’s ideas about the importance of author-player trust, and the effect that that trust can have on how well mechanics work for the player.

And speaking of off-site reading, it’s probably a good time to remind people about the Phrontisterion blog, which has a fair amount to say about IF despite not being aggregated at Planet-IF. It’s specifically taking an outsider’s view at the IF community and IF tools, from the perspective of people interested in Chris Crawford’s work.